Everything seems to be going against the Catholic Church these days. We have poll numbers that say that people are leaving the Church. Public policy seems to be going against us. Abortion remains legal, and civil marriage is no longer defined as being between a man and a woman. Other statistics, such as baptisms and marriages, are down. School enrollment declines, and schools are made to merge or close their doors. Of course, there is the shadow of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that remains. Anti-Catholicism remains a subtle presence in our county. Blatant persecution of all Christians takes place daily in many countries of the world.
What should our response be to all these negative things? Should we pack it in? Should we take the ball and go home? Shall we stay behind closed doors, and shield ourselves from the world around? We have to remember that, while each generation brings new challenges, we as a Church have been at challenging junctures before. What should we do? We should look to the saints of old, and learn how they handled such challenges.
One such saint for our consideration is Thomas More. Thomas More lived in England during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He was a man of great scholarship, rising quickly through the ranks of England’s lawyers. He was an avid philosopher, his most famous work being Utopia. He wrote a theological defense of Catholicism that was published in the name of King Henry VIII, for which King Henry received from the Pope the title of “Defender of the Faith”. More’s thinking and legal skill was so widely respected that the King made him Lord Chancellor of England.
In this lofty position, More was confronted with a difficult choice. King Henry was unable to conceive a son with his Queen, Catherine of Aragon. Therefore, he did not have an heir to the throne. So, the King petitioned the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, but the Pope would not grant it. The King sought to legalize his desire, and sought More’s support. More would not give it, claiming that only the Pope had the competency to try the case, and not the civil jurisdiction. King Henry would not allow Thomas More to dissent from his government’s policy on his annulment and remarriage to Anne Boleyn. More would resign his position, falling from high estate to low estate almost overnight.
King Henry would then declare himself to be the supreme head of the Church in England, with greater authority over spiritual matters than the Pope. The English Parliament would write an Act of Supremacy, which stated that the King was the supreme head of the Church in England. Almost all of the Bishops of England would sign the document, except for John Fisher. Fisher and More were thrown into the Tower of London for their treason to the government. More and Fisher would eventually be given capital punishment, More’s head being chopped off. More’s famous words upon his execution were, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
What can we learn from Sir Thomas More, made St. Thomas More by Pope Pius XI in 1935? Maybe we can learn some courage from St. Thomas More. He knew that his decision to be loyal to Papal authority over state authority could have dangerous consequences for himself. Yet, St. Thomas held fast to his principles, because his faith mattered more than his life. This is what makes him a martyr and a saint! Thomas More could have been one of the many men who signed on with the state’s point of view. He would have had a very comfortable life. But he would have potentially lost his soul, for he knew that it was morally wrong to support the King’s opinion in the case of the annulment. He knew that his soul mattered most.
Do we realize what is most important? Sometimes we become so attached to power or pleasure, that we forget the still small voice that speaks to us. That voice is our conscience. It tells us what is right, and what is wrong. We are responsible to our own conscience. No one can ultimately force us to go against it. We have a responsibility to form our conscience well, through careful study. By forming our conscience in truth, and acting upon it, we participate in God’s life. It is the place where the truth of God is understood by our minds. It is the place where we become one with that Divine Reason. We will be judged by God on how we came to understand and follow the truth with our conscientious choices.
More understood this fact. He knew that a person’s conscience cannot be taken away, only given away. Therefore, one’s conscience is that which gives a person their identity. He would not betray the truth as he understood it. He would not give away his integrity, no matter the cost. He would not betray his faith, nor his conscience.
As the law and the culture obscure Christian truth, and try to compel people to act in ways contrary to Christianity, we are faced with hard choices. Will we be as noble as More? I hope that we will, down to every last Christian, and every last Christian institution. History teaches us that some (maybe many) will not be so noble. But history also gives us the example of the saints, whose commitment to truth, justice, God, and conscience still shines today. “More” on the contemporary challenges to conscience in my next blog article.